After England squeaked by the unfancied Cameroon in the 1990 World Cup quarterfinal, then-coach Bobby Robson was moved to quip, “We didn't underestimate them. They were just a lot better than we thought.” Roy Hodgson’s team may feel similarly after winning 1-0 against a frenetically impressive, attack-minded Ukraine. A dour first half was followed by the entertaining spectacle of the second. England held on and was rewarded. France’s insipid collapse against eliminated Sweden in the other Group D match means the Three Lions topped their group and avoid the world champions in the quarterfinals.
England took the field with its standard 4-4-2 containing one significant difference. Wayne Rooney returned from suspension and dropped right into the side behind Manchester United teammate Danny Welbeck. Ukraine needed victory to advance, but lacked its own talisman, Andriy Shevchenko, who was unable to start due to a left knee injury.
If England fans, aware they needed only a draw to proceed, expected to see their team assert itself and display a confidence in possession for the first time all tournament, they were to be frustrated. Ukraine started boldly, snapping triangular passes with relative ease, stretching a disorganized English defense with its movement. England hedged that its opponent, ranked 52nd in the world, could not sustain its frenetic pace. Only a series of defensive blocks by England midfielder Scott Parker kept the game scoreless.
In the 22nd minute, Oleh Gusev drove forward and pummeled the ball just over the bar. The Ukrainian intensity made England stagger as if its tactical solution to repeated sloppy turnovers was to abandon all attempts to possess the ball and simply try to break up plays.
Rooney, who had overcome the agony of being caged in a Krakow hotel through the first two games due to suspension, appeared eager but rusty. In the 28th minute, he missed a free header from inside the 6-yard box, the ball going wide right of the post.
Ukraine nearly exacted immediate revenge. Andriy Yarmolenko cut in from the right; his shot prioritized placement over power, and Joe Hart did well to hang on. Yarmolenko’s pace was a constant threat, exposing the slow feet in the English defense. When England had the chance to break, it could not move enough numbers forward to make it count.
If the English nation was prepared to watch the second half with a hand over its eyes while crouching behind the couch, it was to be pleasantly surprised. In the 47th minute, the Ukrainian bubble burst. The goal was a howler. Steven Gerrard worked the ball down the right and drove in a cross which, deflected twice, squirmed through Andriy Pyatov’s legs in the Ukrainian 6-yard box for Rooney to head home on the goal line. He had not scored for England in a major tournament since Euro 2004.
Aware that Sweden had taken the lead against France, Ukraine pressed forward in search of goals. In the 63rd minute, the tournament’s inevitable goal-line technology controversy occurred as central defender John Terry crashed into the net to scoop the ball back into play. Television replays suggested the ball did cross the line, but the fifth official, whose existence on the pitch is for such occasions, did not signal a goal, an act which made a mockery of home-field advantage. Terry was the hero for England, though in truth if the goal had been awarded, he would have been the villain, as it was his lack of pace that let Marko Devic in on Hart in the first place.
Undaunted, Ukraine never stopped struggling, delivering a series of long-range blasts, one of which, from Yevhen Konoplyanka, made Hart momentarily uncomfortable. But the English defended with passion to repel their adrenaline-fueled opponents.
For England, what a difference three games make. Its fans proudly displayed their “In Roy We Trust” banners ahead of the game. Before the tournament, such statements were as likely to refer to Roy of Siegfried & Roy as Hodgson, but the English coach was rightly ecstatic postgame, telling the media that “this was an away game with a capital A … where we needed a bit of luck, we got it."
After limping into the tournament plagued by an array of injuries, lingering charges of racism and an allegedly stodgy new coach, England now begins to envision glory. “England unexpectedly expects a win against Ukraine” quipped the Guardian’s Barney Ronay before kickoff, in a headline that could have been ripped from The Onion.
The Three Lions’ dreams look less far-fetched after this win. Their reward is a quarterfinal meeting with Mario Balotelli’s Italians instead of defending champion Spain. With Rooney lacking the burst of speed he brought to the 2004 tournament but scoring, what could possibly go wrong now?
MAN OF THE MATCH
The fifth official behind England’s goal deserves a mention, but Gerrard’s age-defying display edges even him. The armband sits well on the England captain, who led by example at both ends of the field.
Roger Bennett is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @rogbennett.